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Bulletin Board System

The Increasing Price We Pay For The Free Internet

The Price of Freedom is Visible HerePicture : Rhadaway.

This is a follow-up on my previous post, A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers. A key point in that post was that we need to be customers, not commodities.  In the cases of Facebook, Google and the vast majority of free web resources, the business model is to provide a content platform for the public and fund the business via advertising.  In this model, simply, our content is the commodity.  The customer is the advertiser.  And the driving decisions regarding product features relate more to how many advertisers they can bring on and retain than how they can meet the public’s wants and needs.

It’s a delicate balance.  They need to make it compelling for us to participate and provide the members and content that the advertisers can mine and market.  But since we aren’t the ones signing the checks, they aren’t accountable to us, and, as we’ve seen with Facebook, ethical considerations about how they use our data are often afterthoughts.  We’ve seen it over and over, and again this week when they backed off on a real names policy that many of their users considered threatening to their well-being.  One can’t help but wonder, given the timing of their statement, how much new competitor Ello’s surge in popularity had to do with the retraction. After all, this is where a lot of the people who were offended by the real names policy went.  And they don’t want to lose users, or all of their advertisers will start working on Ello to make the Facebook deal.

Free Software is at the Heart of the Internet

Freeware has been around since the ’80’s, much of it available via Bulletin Boards and online services like CompuServe and AOL. It’s important to make some distinctions here.  There are several variants of freeware, and it’s really only the most recent addition that’s contributing to this ethically-challenged business model:

  • Freeware is software that someone creates and gives away, with no license restrictions or expectation of payment. The only business model that this supports is when the author has other products that they sell, and the freeware applications act as loss leaders to introduce their paid products.
  • Donationware is much like Freeware, but the author requests a donation. Donationware authors don’t get rich from it, but they’re usually just capitalizing on a hobby.
  • Freemium is software that you can download for free and use, but the feature set is limited unless you purchase a license.
  • Open Source is software that is free to download and use, as well as modify to better meet your needs. It is subject to a license that mostly insures that, if you modify the code, you will share your modifications freely. The business model is usually based on providing  training and support for the applications.
  • Adware is free or inexpensive software that comes with advertising.  The author makes money by charging the advertisers, not the users, necessarily.

Much of the Internet runs on open source: Linux, Apache, OpenSSL, etc. Early adopters (like me) were lured by the free software. In 1989, I was paying $20 an hour to download Novell networking utilities from Compuserve when I learned that I could get a command line internet account for $20 a month and download them from Novell’s FTP site. And, once I had that account, I found lots more software to download in addition to those networking drivers.

Adware Ascendant

Adware is now the prevalent option for free software and web-based services, and it’s certainly the model for 99% of the social media sites out there.  The expectation that software, web-based and otherwise, will be free originated with the freeware, open source and donationware authors. But the companies built on adware are not motivated by showing off what they’ve made or supporting a community.  Any company funded by venture capital is planning on making money off of their product.  Amazon taught the business community that this can be a long game, and there might be a long wait for a payoff, but the payoff is the goal.

Ello Doesn’t Stand A Chance

So Ello comes along and makes the same points that I’m making. Their revenue plan is to go to a freemium model, where basic social networking is free, but some features will cost money, presumably business features and, maybe, mobile apps. The problem is that the pricing has to be reasonable and, to many, any price is unreasonable, because they like being subsidized by the ad revenue. The expectation is that social media networks are free.  For a social network to replace something as established as Facebook, they will need to offer incentives, not disincentives, and, sadly, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t going to leave unless they are severely inconvenienced by Facebook, regardless of how superior or more ethical the competition is.

So I don’t know where this is going to take us, but I’m tired of getting things for free.  I think we should simply outlaw Adware and return to the simple capitalist economy that our founders conceived of : the one where people pay each other money for products and services. Exchanging dollars for goods is one abstraction layer away from bartering. It’s not as complex and creepy as funding your business by selling the personal information about your users to third parties.  On the Internet, freedom’s just another word for something else to lose.

Wave Impressions

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in November of 2009.

A few months ago, I blogged a bit about Google Wave, and how it might live up to the hype of being the successor to email.  Now that I’ve had a month or so to play with it, I wanted to share my initial reactions.  Short story: Google Wave is an odd duck, that takes getting used to. As it is today, it is not that revolutionary — in fact, it’s kind of redundant. The jury is still out.

Awkwardness

To put Wave in perspective, I clearly remember my first exposure to email.  I bought my first computer in 1987: a Compaq “portable”. The thing weighed about 60 pounds, sported a tiny green on black screen, and had two 5 and 1/4 inch floppy drives for applications and storage).  Along with the PC, I got a 1200 BPS modem, which allowed me o dial up local bulletin boards.  And, as I poked around, I discovered the 1987 version of email: the line editor.

On those early BBSes, emails were sent by typing one line (80 characters, max) of text and hitting “enter”.  Once “enter” was pressed, that line was sent to the BBS.  No correcting typos, no rewriting the sentence.  It was a lot like early typewriters, before they added the ability to strike out previously submitted text.

But, regardless of the primitive editing capabilities, email was a revelation.  It was a new medium; a form of communication that, while far more awkward than telephone communications, was much more immediate than postal mail.  And it wasn’t long before more sophisticated interfaces and editors made their way to the bulletin boards.

Google Wave is also, at this point, awkward. To use it, you have to be somewhat self-confident right from the start, as others are potentially watching every letter that you type.  And while it’s clear that the ability to co-edit and converse about a document in the same place is powerful, it’s messy.  Even if you get over the sprawling nature of the conversations, which are only minimally better than  what you would get with ten to twenty-five people all conversing in one Word document, the lack of navigational tools within each wave is a real weakness.

Redundant?

I’m particularly aware of these faults because I just installed and began using Confluence, a sophisticated, enterprise Wiki (free for nonprofits) at my organization. While we’ve been told that Wave is the successor to email, Google Docs and, possibly, Sharepoint, I have to say that Confluence does pretty much all of those things and is far more capable.  All wikis, at their heart, offer collaborative editing, but the good ones also allow for conversations, plug-ins and automation, just as Google Wave promises.  But with a wiki, the canvas is large enough and the tools are there to organize and manage the work and conversation.  With Wave, it’s awfully cramped, and somewhat primitive in comparison.

Too early to tell?

Of course, we’re looking at a preview.  The two things that possibly differentiate Wave from a solid wiki are the “inbox” metaphor and the automation capabilities. Waves can come to you, like email, and anyone who has tried to move a group from an email list to a web forum knows how powerful that can be. And Wave’s real potential is in how the “bots”, server-side components that can interact with the people communicating and collaborating, will integrate the development and conversation with existing data sources.  It’s still hard to see all of that in this nascent stage.  Until then, it’s a bit chicken and egg.

Wave starting points

There are lots of good Wave resources popping up, but the best, hands down, is Gina Trapini’s Complete Guide, available online for free and in book form soon. Gina’s blog is a must read for people who find the types of things I write about interesting.

Once you’re on wave, you’ll want to find Waves to join, and exactly how you do that is anything but obvious.  the trick is to search for a term “such as “nonprofit” or “fundraising” and add the phrase “with:public”. A good nonprofit wave to start with is titled, appropriately, “The Nonprofit Technology Wave”.

If you haven’t gotten a Wave invite and want to, now is the time to query your Twitter and Facebook friends, because invites are being offered and we’ve passed the initial “gimme” stage.  In fact, I have ten or more to share (I’m peterscampbell on most social networks and at Google’s email service).

Oldstyle Community Management

This article was originally published on the Idealware Blog in May of 2009.

pcboard_disk.jpgPhoto by ferricide
It’s been a big month for Online Community Management in my circles. I attended a session at the Nonprofit Technology Conference on the subject; then, a few weeks later, ReadWriteWeb released a detailed report on the topic. I haven’t read the report, but people I respect who have are speaking highly of it.Do you run an online community? The definition is pretty sketchy, ranging from a blog with active commenters to, say, America Online. If we define an online community as a place where people share knowledge, support, and/or friendship via communication forums on web sites or via email, there are plenty of web sites, NING groups, mailing lists and AOL chat rooms that meet that criteria.

The current interest is spurred by the notion that this is the required web 2.0/3.0 direction for our organizational web sites. We’ve made the move to social media (as this recent report suggests); now we need to be the destination for this online interaction. I don’t think that’s really a given, any more than it’s clear that diving into Facebook and Twitter is a good use of every nonprofit’s resources. It all depends on who your constituents are and how they prefer to interact with you. But, certainly, engagement of all types (charitable, political, commercial) is expanding on the web, and most of us have an audience of supporters that we can communicate with here.

Buried deep in my techie past is a three year gig as an online community manager. It was a volunteer thing. More honestly, a hobby. In 1988, I set up a Fidonet Bulletin Board System (BBS); linked it to a number of international discussion groups (forums); and built up a healthy base of active participants.

This was before the world wide web was a household term. I ran specific software that allowed people to dial in, via modem, to my computer, and either read and type messages on line or download them into something called a “QWK reader“; read and reply off line, and then synchronize with my system later. There were about 1000 bulletin board systems within the local calling distance in San Francisco at the time. Many of them had specific topics, such as genealogy or cooking; mine was a bit more generally focused, but I appealed to birdwatchers, because I published rare bird alerts, and to people who liked to talk politics. This was during the first gulf war, and many of my friends system’s were sporting American Flags (in ASCII Art), while my much more liberal board was the place to be if you were more critical of the war effort.

At the peak of activity, I averaged 200 messages a day in our main forum, and I’m pretty sure that the things that made this work apply just as much to the more sophisticated communities in play today. Those were:

    • Meeting a Need: There were plenty of people who desired a place to talk politics and share with a community, and there wasn’t a lot of competition. The bulk of my success was offering the right thing at the right time. It’s much tougher now to hang a shingle and convince people that your community will meet their needs when they have millions to choose from. How successful — and how useful — your community might be depends on how much of a unique need it serves.
    • Maintaining Focus: many of the popular bulletin boards had forums, online gaming, and downloads. My board had forums. The handful of downloads were the QWK readers and supporting software that helped people use the forums. The first time you logged on, you were subjected to a rambling bit of required reading that said, basically, “if birdwatching and chatting about the issues of the day interests you, keep on reading”, and I saw numerous people hang up before getting through that, which i considered a very good thing. The ones that made it through tended to be civil and engaged by what they signed on for. By focusing more on what made for a quality discussion, as opposed to trying to attract a large, diverse crowd, my base grew much bigger than I ever imagined it would.
    • Tolerance and Civility: We had a few conservatives among our active callers, and that kept the conversation lively. But we had excellent manners, never resorting to personal attacks and sending lots of private messages to the contrarians supporting their involvement. We really appreciated them, and they appreciated semi-celebrity status. It was all about the arguments, not about the attitude. Mind you, this was 1989/90 — I’m not sure if it’s possible to have civil public political debates today…
    • Active moderation: My hobby was a full time job that I did on top of my full time job. I engaged with my callers as if they were sitting in my living room, being gracious and helpful while I participated fully in the main events. There was a little moderation required to keep the tone civil, and making the board safe for all — particularly the ones with the minority opinions — required having their trust that I wouldn’t let any attacks get through without my response.

I think that the biggest question today is whether you should be building a community on your own, or engaging your community in the ample public places (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) that they might already hang out in. In fact, I think that where you engage is a fairly moot point, what’s important is that you do engage and provide a forum that helps people cope and learn about the issues that your organization is addressing. Pretty much all of the bulleted advice above will apply to your community, or out in the community.